The Ambrose Deception by Emily Ecton

Published by Disney Hyperion

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Summary:  Melissa, Wilf, and Bondi, three unlikely Chicago-area middle school students, are chosen to compete for a $10,000 scholarship.  A mysterious “Mr. Smith” gives each of them a driver, a cellphone, a debit card, and three clues to solve about landmarks in their city.  Wilf, the slacker, chooses to focus more on using the debit card than solving the clues, while Melissa and Bondi compete for money that they both could use.  Bondi’s the first to present his solutions, but when he realizes he’s made a mistake that Mr. Smith doesn’t pick up on, he begins to suspect foul play. Breaking the rules, he teams up with the other two kids, and the three of them uncover a plot with stakes much higher than the initial $10,000.  Combining their brains and talents, the three kids manage to thwart some bad guys, discover a good guy who’s been presumed dead, and find a way to treasure and a happy ending for all of them. 368 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  A fun, fast-paced mystery with funny characters and plenty of Chicago history and trivia.  The text is generously interspersed with letters, memos, and texts that keep things moving along quickly.

Cons:  The Internet makes solving some of the clues disappointingly fast and easy.

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Sherlock Holmes and the Disappearing Diamond by Sam Hearn (Baker Street Academy book 1)

Published by Scholastic Press

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Summary:  When John Watson is accepted at Baker Street Academy, it’s elementary that he’ll become friends with classmates Martha Hudson and Sherlock Holmes.  The three have already started palling around when their class witnesses a robbery (“flash rob”) of a valuable diamond while on a field trip. For the remainder of the story, John is trying to figure out what happened; Sherlock, of course, is always several steps ahead of him.  A return trip to the museum results in a showdown between Sherlock and his archenemy James Moriarty, and the thief is revealed, along with a few other secret identities.  In the final chapter, John’s parents are off on an extended business trip and Sherlock’s older brother has mysteriously left for awhile, so Sherlock and John move in with the Hudsons at 221B Baker Street.  More adventures?  Elementary again.  176 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Readers will find the blend of text, illustrations, and cartoon bubbles engaging, while getting a taste (in younger versions) of many of the classic Sherlock Holmes characters and settings.

Cons:  For a book targeted to younger elementary readers, there were a lot of characters to keep track of and a somewhat tangled web of a mystery.

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Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls by Beth McMullen

Published by Aladdin

Summary:  Abigail Hunter is mystified and not too happy when she receives her acceptance letter from The Smith School for Children, a boarding school she didn’t know her mom had applied to.  She makes friends quickly, though, and is settling in when she uncovers a shocking truth.  The headmistress Mrs. Smith is actually a spy, and so is Abby’s mother, Jennifer, who has gone missing.  Abby is recruited and quickly trained in spying techniques and self-defense, then sent to California to try to lure Jennifer out of hiding and get the top-secret information she has uncovered.  Nothing goes as planned, Abby is kidnapped, the mission is botched, and when she finally returns to school, she is relieved of her spying duties.  Determined to find her mother, she recruits her friends to help her, and sets off for their home in New York City.  There’s plenty of action and high-tech gadgetry, as Abby manages to free herself from one perilous situation after another and finally reunite with her mom.  304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Plenty of humor and action will make this an appealing choice for many readers, who can look forward to book 2 coming out next summer.

Cons:  You’ll definitely have to suspend some disbelief as you read about Abby’s non-stop escapades in the spy world.

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The Real McCoys by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr

Published by Imprint

       

Summary:  Moxie McCoy is at a crossroads in her fourth-grade life.  Her best friend has moved away, and she is shopping for another one, specifically one who can help her solve mysteries.  She is also taxed with the job of making sure her younger brother Milton is doing okay while their scientist mother is away hunting insects.  In the midst of all this, the school’s beloved owl mascot goes missing, and Moxie takes it upon herself to solve the case.  This involves multiple trips to the principal’s office to report on her findings, which are mostly confident, if mistaken, declarations of who the real culprit is.  As the day goes on, Moxie finds herself working more and more with Milton, whom the reader will notice has some traits, like patience and thoughtfulness, that Moxie occasionally lacks, even if she is three years older.  Working together, the siblings solve the case, and Moxie even gets a lead on a new best friend, paving the way for book #2.  Includes “Moxie’s Official Debrief” (some questions to help the reader think critically about the story), Moxie’s Dictionary, and an excerpt from one of Moxie’s favorite girl detective stories that she refers to throughout the book.  336 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Kids will love Moxie, Milton, and the format of this book, with the illustrations woven seamlessly into the text.  Cartoon bubbles and different fonts make the dialog come alive.  Readers will keep rooting for Moxie as she refuses to give up on the case or her friends and family.

Cons:  Readers will occasionally groan at Moxie’s cluelessness.

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Hero Dog! (Hilde Cracks the Case, Book 1) by Hilde Lysiak with Matthew Lysiak

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Hilde is a young detective and reporter who has started her own online newspaper, The Orange Street News, about events in her neighborhood.  When she hears about a break-in, she jumps on her bicycle to find out more.  A trail of clues leads her to a series of people who have had a baked good stolen…and right on the morning of the big Bake-Off Bonanza!  Hilde’s reporter father has trained her to look for the who, what, where, when, how, and why, and she doesn’t give up until she’s found the answer to each one of those questions.  The mystery isn’t solved until she’s at the Bake-Off itself, and it’s a determined little black dog who finally leads her to the culprit.  Includes information about the real Hilde, who wrote this book with her father, and a preview of book #2.  96 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  Fans of Cam Jansen and the A to Z Mysteries will enjoy this new series, particularly when they find out it was written by someone their own age.  Hilde is smart and determined, and she and her older sister work well together with a refreshing lack of sibling rivalry.  Another successful early chapter book series from the Scholastic Branches imprint.

Cons:  All the teenagers in the book are portrayed as nasty and obnoxious (giving you a clue about the “who” in the mystery.)

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The Shadow Cipher (York: Book 1) by Laura Ruby

Published by Walden Pond Press

Summary:  In an alternate New York City, three seventh graders rush to solve a century-old puzzle that they hope will save their home.  When the unique building they live in is bought by an uncaring billionaire, twins Theo and Tess and their friend Jaime decide to try to solve the Cipher.  Created by the Morningstarr twins in the nineteenth century, the Cipher has baffled people for years, including the twins’ grandfather, now suffering from dementia.  When the kids discover a letter sent to their grandfather that appears to be from one of the Morningstarrs, they think they have stumbled upon a new version of the Cipher that may lead to its solution and the treasure that awaits the solver.  Rushing from one adventure to the next, the reader learns about some of the steampunk-inspired inventions of the Morningstarrs that are part of daily life in this version of NYC.  Although the kids discover important clues, the case of the Cipher is still not cracked by the end, and a cliffhanger will leave readers anxiously awaiting book 2.  496 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Fans of Rick Riordan will eagerly consume this tale featuring three gifted, quirky protagonists, an intriguing mystery, and plenty of adventure.

Cons:  The kids seemed to solve the extremely difficult puzzles with remarkable ease…although at least some of that may be part of the mystery.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Published by Sterling Children’s Books

Summary:  Aven has always believed she can do whatever she wants, and being born without arms hasn’t stopped her from playing guitar, excelling at soccer, and making plenty of friends at her Kansas middle school.  But when her parents suddenly decide to take over Stagecoach Pass, a has-been theme park in Arizona, Arlen has to start eighth grade in a new school.  Unable to face the stares of her new classmates, she takes to eating her lunch in the library, where she meets Connor, a boy with Tourette’s syndrome and Zion, a boy struggling with weight and self-esteem issues.  The three become friends, and uncover a mystery at Stagecoach Pass involving tarantulas, a locked desk, and a mysterious girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to Arlen.  In the process of solving the mystery, the kids also have to acknowledge their own limitations and learn to reach out and help each other reach their full potential.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Arlen is a confident, hilarious narrator whose fun and supportive parents have taught her to face life head-on and learn to do as much as she can for herself.  The story ends on a realistically uplifting note for all the characters.

Cons:  Zion seemed like a bit of an afterthought.  I would have liked to have known more about him and seen a little growth and change for him.